Battle Deaths Arriving At Dover Air Force Base, Delaware
Here in Arizona there's been a week-long mourning session for the brave firefighters who gave their lives last week in an effort to halt a firestorm. Rightly so. We should honor them. However, across the country, three thousand miles away, in the dead of night, an aircraft will land, taxi to a military deceased processing hangar, where they will be processed for burial at a designated location. For these brave troops there will be no public mourning. A crowd of thousands does not gather to pay their respects and honor their sacrifice. They will be given loving treatment by military escorts, for they too, would want to be treated in a like manner, but as little attention as possible is the government goal. That is all by government design.
They arrive by night so as not to attract the media. They arrive with little fanfare so that America need not witness the "real" costs of the war. The War in Iraq costs over a trillion dollars. The Afghan War will exceed those costs. But really what we're talking about are dollar bills. The real national treasure lost in those wars is in the form of 20 year old bodies brought home as secretly as possible.
This nearly clandestine way of bringing our dead home has been going on since the Vietnam war. While our losses in the Middle East have been heartbreaking, the numbers do not begin to approach the losses during the height of the Vietnam conflict. It was there that death and sacrifice began to have a new meaning for me.
We used to use those metal coffins to store extra ammunition. Mounted on military 2 1/2 ton trucks these coffins were the leftovers that the base morgue could not sufficiently fumigate to ferry a body home. We would often climb into these trucks on the way to our defense posts. In doing so we often fought for a position in the rear of the truck, away from that foul smelling coffin where the dead had been confined until he was processed at the morgue. It smelled like the foulest rotted meat and we often gagged and used handkerchiefs soaked in a little gasoline to ward off the smell.
After several months in Vietnam I was assigned to mortar and rocket observation towers. One such tower, designated Tango 10, was situated in a munitions storage area and just adjacent to the base morgue. Our morgue served nearly all of III Corp, a large military area in the southern part of the country, which included Saigon. My fellow tower mate and I hated the post because all night helicopters flew in, landed in the Morgue yard with a load of dead, then departed to bring back another load. My buddy and I often marveled at the Johnson Administration's daily report of "body counts".
At the bottom right hand corner of our military newspaper, The Stars and Stripes, was a small print block which reported the previous day's war death count. My friend and I regarded that published account with great skepticism as we watched dozens of bodies being flown into the morgue, in numbers far higher than reported by the daily press.
So while we should honor our fallen firefighters, while it is right and proper that a crowd of 30,000 will gather to do so, we might do well to say a little prayer for those who arrive surreptiously in the middle of the night at Dover Air Force Base. They are the true "hidden costs" of war, the costs that the American public rarely sees, except at some small hometown cemetery where the fallen will at last be laid to rest, and honored by a small circle of family and friends.